Caroline Russell is one of three Green Party representatives on the London Assembly and is a councillor for Highbury within the Islington North constituency. She is Leader of the City Hall Greens and spokesperson for the Green Group on Health and Policing.
Tell us about your aims and priorities this year?
In my first Assembly term (2016-2021), I focused on a range of issues affecting Londoners around transport, the environment and London’s economy. Since the election in 2021, I have been the Green Group lead for policing and health and the committees that cover the oversight of the Assembly’s activity and the GLA’s budget. As part of my policing work, I have been looking at the breakdown of trust and confidence in policing and the really worrying impact of disproportionality, which has become increasingly public, particularly over this last year.
I started out in the first year of this term as the chair of the Health Committee, and we did a report on drug harm reduction. We worked cross party to produce a report which put forward with three key recommendations to reduce drug harm, which included police officers carrying nasal naloxone spray, piloting overdose prevention rooms and improving drug checking services. In May, I will be chair of the Assembly Police and Crime Committee, and finding ways to get to cross party consensus on tough issues like diversion, stop and search and trust and confidence is going to be the challenge for me over the year ahead.
In your view, how can out of court disposals and drug diversion specifically, impact or improve trust and confidence?
We know that young black men are disproportionately stopped and searched and sometimes, people end up pushed into the criminal justice system for things like possession of a small amount of cannabis. If that initial interaction with the police was trauma informed interaction which did not lead to a fast track into the criminal justice system, that helps with building trust and confidence. Leadership is needed in every single part of the work of the Metropolitan Police but starting to rebuild trust and confidence is a key step.
When I first spoke to the current Commissioner, Mark Rowley, back in October 2022, he said he understood the power of out of court disposals, so I think there is certainly an openness to use out of court disposals more. Diversion can and should be part of a solution, reducing criminalisation particularly of young Black men who are disproportionally affected.
What do you think are the barriers towards effective drug policy?
It can be quite political, and there is a nervousness amongst some politicians around drug diversion. The illegal supply of drugs is a massive driver of violence, harm and exploitation. So, endorsing measures even those that are proven to reduce harm brings out political nervousness despite the fact that they are successfully used all across the country – for example, Diversion being used in the West Midlands. The way to drive change forward is by showing the evidence, building the case and continuing to press for a humane and people centred, trauma informed way of dealing with this.
How do you combat the negative public perception of drug diversion?
We've just been through the budget process and the Mayor has a £20 billion budget that covers the Metropolitan Police as well as Transport for London, the London Fire Brigade and other things. We used this year’s budget process to propose a pilot drug diversion scheme for London to demonstrate what the evidence already clearly shows, which is that diversion works.
As politicians on the Assembly, our role is a scrutiny role rather than a legislative role. So my job is to make the case for diversion, but any final decision about diversion would sit with the Met and with the Mayor's office for Police and Crime (MOPAC).
What are the next steps for drug diversion?
There’s a real importance in talking to the people who are affected by current Met policing practices. When you talk to young people, you hear heart breaking stories about the impact on either them, their siblings or their friends of being stopped and searched, possibly more intimately searched. When you hear about the impact of people ending up in the criminal justice system or left traumatised by these intrusive practices, you can see that actually there is another way of doing it. A way that would actually help Londoners and the police, would cost less money and would mean that the criminal justice system was less clogged up with cases that could be resolved in a different way or didn’t need to be there in the first place.
Connecting with organisations like yours and seeing people who work in the field, who are so clear and so passionate about the reasons to make a change, is so helpful. It's never one person doing something on their own, it's about partnership and for me, playing a part in that with the scrutiny tools that are available to me, that's what I'm determined to do.